The editors of the “Associated Press Stylebook” have announced that they are “discouraging” use of the word “homophobia.” (The “AP Stylebook” is the widely used guide that media use to standardize terms and general usage.) Why should the LGBTQ community be in a kerfuffle about it? Because the editors made their decision without consultation with the nation’s leading LGBTQ organizations, leaders, activists and newspapers. That is a problem.
With an estimated 3,400 AP employees in bureaus around the globe, the AP’s suggestion could have a tsunami-like effect on how the world comes to understand, be informed about or dismiss discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people. AP’s online Stylebook defines a phobia as “an irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness” and says words such as “Islamophobia” and “homophobia” therefore should be expunged from political and social contexts. Preciseness in language is important, but language is a representation of culture. How we use it perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender and sexual orientation. We consciously and unconsciously articulate this in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and it travels generationally.
What’s in the word “homophobia”? A lot: the history and culture of not only discrimination, violence and hatred toward LGBTQ people but irrational fear of us. This irrational fear may not need psychiatric or clinical intervention, but it should nonetheless be aptly labeled as a phobia. Consider, for example, the infamous bogus legal argument called the “gay panic defense.” It’s simply an excuse for murder in which a heterosexual defendant pleas temporary insanity as self-defense against a purported sexual advance by an LGBTQ person. Another example is the “ick factor,” the revulsion some heterosexuals feel toward the way we LGBTQ people engage in sexual intimacy. Altering the hearts and minds of these folks will take a while, if not a lifetime.
AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn shared with “Politico” his opinion that the word “homophobia” is “just off the mark.” He explained, “It’s ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge that we don’t have. It seems inaccurate. Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such, if we had reason to believe that was the case.” It is my opinion that keeping the word “homophobia” narrowly used and confined within a medical context is controlling. It’s also absurd for the AP to think that it could discourage the use of the word with absolutely no consultation with the LGBTQ community; this demonstrates hubris and insensitivity, and it raises questions about the political and social motives behind this decision.
Just ask George Weinberg, the psychologist who coined the word “homophobia” in his 1972 book “Society and the Healthy Homosexual.” “It made all the difference to city councils and other people I spoke to,” Weinberg told journalist Andy Humm. “It encapsulates a whole point of view and of feeling. It was a hard-won word, as you can imagine. It even brought me some death threats. Is homophobia always based on fear? I thought so and still think so. … We have no other word for what we’re talking about, and this one is well established. We use ‘freelance’ for writers who don’t throw lances anymore and who want to get paid for their work. … It seems curious that this word is getting such scrutiny while words like triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13) hang around.”
The word “homophobia” derives from the unique history of LGBTQ people and our shared struggle for civil rights across the world. It has become part and parcel of a universal LGBTQ lexicon that accurately reflects our reality. The phenomenon of homophobia has power and unfortunately deleterious effects, but part of our liberation is in our strength to call out acts of homophobia. If the press eliminated use of the word, that would not only diminish people’s chances of understanding homophobia’s wide-ranging effects but would diminish the reach of LGBTQ activists in our continued efforts to effect change.
AP now has assumed control of the word “homophobia,” but it’s not theirs. Several mainstream newspapers are pushing back. (Newspapers and other media are under no orders to follow AP guidelines.) “Baltimore Sun” copy editor John E. McIntyre wrote in his op-ed “Sorry, AP, can’t go along on ‘homophobia'” that the AP ruling is “reasoned, principled, and wrong-headed.” McIntyre points to the 40-year usage of the word “homophobia” and makes a practical point: “If the editors of the AP Stylebookwish to discourage the use of certain words simply because they can be misused or misunderstood, there ought to be a great many in line ahead of ‘homophobia.'”